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Holman Bible Dictionary
Few of the effective ways of preventing and treating disease that people take for granted today were available then. Immunization against disease was unknown. The discovery of antibiotics, vitamins, hormones, anesthetics, and most effective surgical procedures lay far in the future. Illness struck quickly with devastating results. Life expectancy was short.
Providers of Medical Care Ancient Near Eastern literature contains numerous references to physicians and medical practice. A Sumerian physician, Lulu, lived in Mesopotamia about 2700 B.C. A few decades later, a famous Egyptian named Imhotep established a reputation as a physician and priest. He also became noted as a great architect. He designed the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
The Code of Hammurabi, from about 1750 B.C., contains several laws regulating the practice of medicine and surgery by physicians in the Old Babylonian Kingdom. Although the profession of medicine was in its infancy, the many practitioners slowly improved their skills.
The Egyptians made more rapid progress in medical knowledge and its application to patients than did the Babylonians. Their physicians tended to specialize. Each would limit his practice to one part of the body, such as the eye, the teeth, or the stomach. Egyptian doctors, like others, often used herbs in their medications. These were collected from many areas of the world and were often grown in gardens connected with the temples of Egypt. Egyptian physicians became respected throughout the ancient world. Their skill was even admired in a later period by the Greeks, who eventually became the foremost physicians.
The Old Testament has only a few references to physicians. These persons most likely had been trained in Egypt. Physicians were called upon to embalm the body of Jacob (Genesis 50:2 ). King Asa sought medical care from physicians for his diseased feet (2 Chronicles 16:12 ). Some non-medical references are made to physicians (Jeremiah 8:22; Job 13:4 ). It is unlikely that many trained physicians lived among the ancient Hebrews.
The great Greek physician, Hippocrates, born about 460 B.C., is often referred to as the Father of Medicine. Hippocrates believed that disease had natural causes. He relied mainly on diet and various herbs to treat his patients. Around 300 B.C. the Greeks established an important medical school in Alexandria, Egypt, which flourished for several centuries and trained many physicians. The school was noted for its large library and laboratory facilities. Dissection of the human body was permitted, and some limited advances were made in the knowledge of anatomy.
Greek physicians became renowned throughout the Mediterranean world. Medicine gradually became more scientific and less controlled by magic and superstition. The Greeks acknowledged their debt to the Egyptians and were particularly appreciative of the information these doctors had gathered about the use of plants in medical practice.
By the time of Jesus, the city of Rome had become an important medical center. Many physicians practiced there. Originally they were in the slave class, but their profession gradually became esteemed. Julius Caesar granted Roman citizenship to Greek physicians practicing in Rome. The Romans made significant contributions in the area of public health, including the provision of a relatively pure water supply, an effective sewage disposal system, and the establishment of a food inspection program. The Romans also established a network of hospitals, initially founded to care for the needs of the army.
Outlying regions of the empire, such as Palestine, apparently had few well-trained doctors, although little information is available concerning professional medical care outside the large cities. The majority of people probably were born and died without ever being treated by a trained physician.
The New Testament mentions physicians only a few times. Jesus noted the purpose of a physician is to treat the ill (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31 ), and he referred to a common proverb, “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23 ). Mark and Luke related the story of a woman who had sought the help of physicians but had not been healed (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48 ). Paul, in Colossians 4:14 , remarks that his colleague, Luke, was a physician. Luke was a Gentile, but his hometown is unknown. The source of his medical training is also unknown, but it is possible that he went to medical school in Tarsus, Paul's hometown.
In many lands, priests were assigned medical duties. This was true among the ancient Hebrews, where priests were major providers of medical services. They were especially responsible for the diagnosis of diseases which might pose a threat to the community (Leviticus 13:1 ). Priests in Israel apparently played little role in the actual treatment of ill persons.
During the time of the New Testament, the Roman god of healing, Aesculapius (known by the Greeks at an earlier time by the name of Asklepios), was popular. Many of his temples, staffed by his priests, were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Persons seeking healing thronged these temples. They often brought small replicas of the portion of the body that was afflicted by disease to these temples and left them with the priests. Other sites, for one reason or another, became renowned as places of healing. A good biblical example of this is the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15 ). The pool of Siloam also is connected with Jesus' ministry of healing (John 9:7 ).
Most of the medicine practiced in ancient Palestine and in other outlying parts of the Roman Empire was probably unprofessional. This was certainly true in Old Testament times. Women, trained by apprenticeship and experience served as midwives. Some persons became adept at setting broken bones. Families were left to apply their own folk remedies in most cases of illness, perhaps in consultation with someone in the community who had become known for his or her success in the treatment of various ailments. Fortunately, the human body has considerable ability to heal itself. Despite obvious medical limitations, many of the patients recovered; and many of the remedies used were “successful.”
Methods of Treating Disease The Bible contains little information about the treatment of disease, except through miraculous means. Much of the data concerning this subject has to be obtained from other ancient literature. Most of these records come from the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Some are even older. For example, a clay tablet containing fifteen prescriptions from a Sumerian source has been found. This dates to about 2200 B.C.
An examination of these old records, often fragmentary and obscure, reveals that most medicines were derived from three sources. The majority came from various parts of many different plants. Early physicians also used substances obtained from animals, such as blood, urine, milk, hair, and ground-up shell and bone. In addition, certain mineral products were commonly used, including salt and bitumen. The use of these medicines was often accompanied by magical rites, incantations, and prayers. In the earliest periods, in particular, lines were not clearly drawn between religion, superstition, and science.
Modern doctors and Bible students have an almost impossible task as they try to diagnose accurately ailments mentioned in the Bible. Various infectious diseases undoubtedly accounted for a large number of the cases of serious illness and death. Nutritional deficiencies, birth defects, and injuries were common. The symptoms produced by these and other types of physical afflictions were treated by a variety of means.
Prevention is always the best form of treatment. Since the cause of most illness was unknown in the biblical period, relatively little could be done, however, to prevent disease. Ancient people did realize a contagious nature to some illnesses. In these cases, attempts were made to quarantine the afflicted person and prevent close contact with healthy individuals (Leviticus 13:1 ).
The Hebrew word translated, “leprosy,” in Leviticus 13:1 is a general term used to describe a number of different skin eruptions. Although true leprosy occurred in ancient times and often caused changes in the skin, many of the persons brought to the priests undoubtedly suffered from more common bacterial and fungal infections of the skin. The priests had the duty of determining, on the basis of repeated examination, which of these eruptions posed a threat to others. They had the authority to isolate persons with suspected dangerous diseases from the community.
Isaiah 38:1 relates the story of the very serious illness of King Hezekiah. The cause of his illness was a “boil” ( Isaiah 38:21 ). The Hebrew word translated, “boil,” is translated, “sore boils,” in Job 2:7 . It is also the word used to describe the eruption occurring on men and beasts mentioned in Exodus 9:8-11 (compare Leviticus 13:18-20; Deuteronomy 28:27 ).
The illness of Hezekiah was treated by applying a poultice of figs (Isaiah 38:21 ). Hezekiah almost certainly had some type of acute bacterial infection of the skin. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, these dangerous infections could cause death. Although it is unlikely that the figs had any medicinal value, they were probably applied in the form of a hot compress. Heat is an effective treatment for infections of the skin.
The use of hot and cold compresses and baths was widely employed in the ancient world to treat illness, although the Bible itself has little to say about this. Herod the Great, according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, spent his last days at his winter palace in Jericho, where he sought relief in hot baths from his intense suffering. His physicians also bathed him in warm oil.
Medical care in biblical times frequently employed the use of different kinds of salves and ointments. Olive oil was used widely, either alone or as an ingredient in ointments. The use of oil for the treatment of wounds is mentioned in Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34 . Oil also became a symbol of medicine, and its use was coupled with prayer for the ill (Mark 6:13; James 5:14 ).
Changes in diet were often suggested to the ill person. Since knowledge of nutrition and its role in the prevention and treatment of disease was so rudimentary, it is unlikely that many persons benefited from this approach. Nevertheless, through such trial and error, eventually some success was achieved. The dietary laws contained in the Old Testament were given for religious, not medical, reasons.
Herbs and various products obtained from many different plants were among the most popular of ancient medicines. These were applied to the body as a poultice, or, in many cases, taken by mouth. Frankincense and myrrh—gum resins obtained from trees—were commonly used to treat a variety of diseases, although their main use was in perfumes and incense. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, described many of the substances used by physicians in the first century to treat disease. In retrospect, it is obvious that most of the herbs employed could not have been very effective. Some may have even been harmful. Some plants are, of course, poisonous (2 Kings 4:39-41 ). On the other hand, some of the products may actually have been of some benefit. Many modern medicines are derived from plants.
Wine was commonly thought to have medicinal value. One of its uses was to alleviate pain and discomfort. Wine, mixed with gall and myrrh, was offered to Jesus prior to His crucifixion, but He refused to drink it (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23 ). Wine also was used to sooth stomach and intestinal disorders (1 Timothy 5:23 ) and to treat a variety of other physical problems. Beer was also widely used as an ingredient in several medicines, especially by the Babylonians.
Mental illness and epilepsy were not uncommon in the ancient world, and the victims suffered greatly. Their sickness was usually associated with demonic powers. The afflicted person was often isolated, and even abused in some cases. King Saul became mentally unstable, and it is of interest that he gained some help from music (1 Samuel 16:23 ), a form of therapy that has proved to be beneficial in some cases of mental illness. Perhaps the most dramatic example of mental illness related in the Bible concerns the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:1 ). No treatment is described, but the king's sanity was restored when he acknowledged the true God.
Sterility was a great burden in biblical times. A childless couple was pitied by all. When Leah suffered a temporary period of sterility, she sent her son, Reuben, to the field to obtain mandrakes. Her barren sister, Rachel, also asked for some of the mandrakes (Genesis 30:1 : 9-24 ). The root of the mandrake was widely used in the ancient world to promote conception, although there is no reason to believe it was truly effective. It was also used as a narcotic.
Most babies were born without the benefit of a physician. Midwives were frequently sought to give help, especially in the case of difficult deliveries (Genesis 35:16-21; 1 Samuel 4:19-22 ). Babies were often born with mothers seated on a special stool (Exodus 1:16 ). Many mothers and babies died during childbirth, or in the first few days and weeks after delivery. The high death rate was due to infection, blood loss, poor nutrition, and the absence of good medical care before, during, and after childbirth. The custom of breast-feeding fortunately did help prevent some illness.
Several examples of sickness are mentioned in the Bible where no description of the treatment given is described. King Asa had a disease of the feet (2 Chronicles 16:12 ). The nature of the treatment provided by his physicians is not given, but it was unsuccessful, and he died after two years. He may have been afflicted with gout, but this is uncertain.
King Jehoram died with a painful intestinal disorder (2 Chronicles 21:18-20 ). King Uzziah died of leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:19-23 ). King Herod Agrippa I died of some kind of parasitic disease (Acts 12:21-23 ). Several kings died of injuries received in battle. Ahaziah died following a fall from the upper portion of his home in Samaria (2 Kings 1:2-17 ). When illness or accident occurred in the ancient world, it mattered little whether one was a royal person or a commoner—in either case, only limited medical help was available.
Several illnesses accompanied by fever are mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 8:14-15; John 4:46-52; Acts 28:8 ). In the last cited reference, the ill man also had dysentery. Dysentery has several causes, but a very common and serious type in the biblical world was caused by amoeba, an intestinal parasite. Most fevers were due to infectious diseases, including malaria. There was no effective treatment for any of these infections, and death was all too often the outcome. Infections of the eye often resulted in blindness.
Small children were particularly vulnerable to illness, and the death rate could be high. The Bible tells of many children who suffered illness and sometimes death (2 Samuel 12:15-18; 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Luke 7:11-15; Luke 8:40-56; John 4:46-52 ). It was in such instances that the lack of effective remedies was most painfully apparent.
Since there was relatively little good medical care available and since illness so often led to disastrous results, it is not unexpected that sick persons in biblical times frequently asked for divine help. The Hebrew people were no exception to this practice. They often sought the help of God directly through prayer or through some person who was believed to possess special God-granted power to heal. A large number of the miracles described in the Bible are miracles of healing.
Surgery The only surgical procedure mentioned in the Bible is circumcision. This was done for religious rather than medical reasons and was not ordinarily performed by a doctor. In many ways, however, advances in surgery occurred more rapidly than progress in other branches of medicine in many countries. Descriptions of operations have been found in ancient literature, and some old surgical tools have been found in the ruins of ancient cities. Skeletons and mummies sometimes bear the traces of ancient surgical procedures.
Boils were lanced; broken bones were set; arms and legs were amputated. Holes were drilled into skulls to relieve pressure, and stones were removed from the urinary bladder. Teeth were also extracted. Ancient mummies have been found with gold fillings in their teeth. In addition, false teeth, using human or animal teeth, were being prepared by at least 500 B.C. Other kinds of daring operations were performed. Surgery called for boldness both on the part of the doctor and the patient. Despite the lack of modern antiseptics, anesthetics, antibiotics, and blood transfusions, many of the operations were successful.
Jesus and the Treatment of Disease One of the major ministries of Jesus was the healing of ill persons. They flocked to Him in large numbers, often after having tried all the remedies available in their day. They were desperate for help.
Jesus did not believe that all illness was the direct result of sin (John 9:1-3 ). He had the power, however, both to forgive sin and to heal (Matthew 9:1-8; compare Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26 ). Ordinarily, He did not use any kind of secondary means to treat the afflicted, although on several occasions He used spittle (Mark 7:32-35; Mark 8:22-25; John 9:6-7 ). Some of the illnesses treated by Jesus probably had a psychosomatic basis; but many others undoubtedly had organic causes, including birth defects, accidental injuries, and infections.
Regardless of the cause of their distress, people found that Jesus could truly help. There can be no doubt that the ability of Jesus to perform miracles is seen most vividly in His healing ministry. The blind, the deaf, the lame, and sufferers of all varieties found in Him the help that was often not available through regular medical channels.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Diseases'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/d/diseases.html. 1991.